Dirty Jobs of the Victorian Era – Syphilis and Hats

Taken from Pembroke’s Articles of Occupational Concerns, 1881

Do you own a hat? Of course you do. Every self-respecting person does. I’ve seen many of you enter my clinic touting magnificent headpieces of all varieties. However, like many of the delightful items of life that we enjoy, the beauty of these millinery masterpieces derives from less than pleasant origins.

s hat 1
She might not be smiling so much if she knew precisely how much pee-pee went into making that hat of hers…

First, a quick word on syphilis: it’s such a fashionable disease, don’t you think? All the finest members of society have suffered from it: Abraham Lincoln, Beethoven – goodness, even Ivan the Terrible reportedly had symptoms. With primary, secondary and tertiary syphilitic effects ranging from sore throats to massively pronounced lumps and tumors, from degradation of eye sight to degenerating bone structure and faculties of balance, it might be understood that victims of the virulent disease would jump at any form of solution – including quicksilver (the spectacularly misguided application of which we’ve encountered before), and it’s remained the primary form of treatment for many years.

But back to hats.

Your couture-crown is made from a wondrously foul material known to many as felt; the compressed and matted fur of formerly living, breathing animals. One of the primary methods to create felt, in use since the late 17th century, was called carroting. By applying mercury compounds, it causes the animal hair to shrink and turn an orange ‘carrot’ color, allowing the fur to be easily removed, massed into clumps and processed from there.

Back before the direct use of mercury compounds – and consequent poisoning – was in vogue, the easily sourced fluid of human urine served as the best means to treat the fur of animals prior to removal. It was noted however that the urine of some workers was better than others in matting the fur. What was the common variable?

An unhealthy sex life, as it happens.

s hat 2
Destruction of the upper maxilla bones from mercury poisoning. When prevention is 110% better than the cure.

Milliners, or hat makers, who were undergoing syphilis treatment by means of mercury (we must use the term ‘treatment’ extremely liberally) were found to experience much better results when using their own urine to cure animal fur. One must wonder how on earth this connection was made – I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall during the conversations that broached this scientific phenomena with the milliners themselves…

“Hey there Bertha… good work with the hats there. Your felt is… well, it’s phenomenal…”
“Thanks a lot Ted, nice of you to say.”
“Say, Bertha, how’s your… y’know… married life?”
“Well it’s fine… the husband and me are doing fine. Why’d you ask?”
“Well, haha, interesting thing… but, and forgive me for being so bold, but how are things… y’know, in between the sheets?”
“Pardon me?”
“In bed, Bertha. You and the husband notice anything strange?”
“Excuse me? Ted, how dare you – that’s none of your flippin’ business…”

s hat 3
Mad as a Hatter. Or in this case, as Bored as a Hatter.

However it happened, it became quickly known that mercury had better results with the processing of fur than without. Judging by the fact that people were willing to ingest mercury directly with dubious results, widespread use in factory production from the turn of the century was clearly not a concern. Not at first, at least.

You’ve no doubt heard the descriptor ‘mad as a hatter’ for those who appear mentally unstable. Its origins lie in the very real and disastrous effects that the quicksilver compound had on the human bodies who worked with it, day after day. Prolonged exposure brought about distinct neurological effects such as ‘tremors’ and crippling behavioural symptoms. The poor worker would also have physiological effects such as bleeding from the gums, ears and mouth, as well as entire loss of teeth, hair and nails. I’m sure someone would have liked to blame the syphilis patients for being the source of the idea to begin with – if any had still been alive.

Even with these symptoms, here in the early 1870’s, manufacturers continue to use mercury in the production of felt, terminally poisoning their employees in the process. And they say I’m the monster in society. The cheek.

But who cares a jot, right? Felt makes such a fine hat. And you look quite simply spiffy in the one you’re wearing. Just try not to think about where it came from. Or who made it. Or that weird odor. In fact, just stop thinking about it all together.

It’s for the best.

Sources available on request.

This article was first published on The Pandora Society on June 17th 2015.

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